Today I read another article about a Protestant becoming Catholic through the reading of the early church fathers. Is this really where the writings of the church fathers lead?
I’ve been reading the writings of the 2nd through 4th century fathers for 20 years now, and I have never thought about becoming Catholic. On the other hand, the person who introduced me to the early church fathers became an Anglican priest–for a while–because the Anglicans claim apostolic succession like the Roman Catholics do.
I don’t think the early church fathers lead in any way toward Catholicism, but there is a reason that people are confused into believing that they do.
It’s because Protestants neither care about nor understand the church.
The Church Is the What???
I read a blog one day by a former Protestant pastor turned Catholic priest. He said the turning point for him was when a Catholic asked him what is “the pillar and support of the truth.”
He answered, of course, that the pillar and support of the truth is the Scriptures. So the Catholic told him, “Why don’t you go read 1 Tim. 3:15.”
1 Tim 3:15 says, of course, that the church, not the Bible, is the pillar and support of the truth.
He was on his way to becoming Catholic.
The question every Protestant will ask himself when he reads 1 Tim. 3:15 is, “Which church?” Which church is the pillar and support of the truth?
The Roman Catholics think it’s obvious. So do I.
But I think the Roman Catholics are obviously wrong. Here’s why.
How Can a Church Be the Pillar and Support of the Truth?
Rather than listening to Catholic reasoning or Protestant reasoning, why don’t we look at what the apostles said about the truth. How was someone supposed to know the truth.
Twice the Scriptures talk about how to escape corrupt men who try to seduce us away from the truth. Once, it’s in Ephesians 4:11-16. There the combination of, one, church leaders equipping us to build the church and , two, speaking the truth in love to one another leads to our being solid in the truth.
The other is 1 Jn. 2:26-27, where John tells us that the anointing will lead us into what is true and not a lie.
One important point Protestants miss when they read 1 Jn. 2:27 is that the “yous” in that verse are plural. The anointing will lead us, not me, into the truth.
Let’s think about this a moment …
How are we being led into truth? How are we being protected from error?
According to Ephesians 4 and 1 John 2, the church–which 1 Tim. 3:15 tells us the pillar and support of the truth–will guide us into truth by the following method:
- Church leaders equip us to be beneficial to the church … to build it up (Eph. 4:12)
- We speak the truth in love to one another (Eph. 4:13-16)
- The anointing–the guidance of God–leads us together into the truth
Now that we’ve got the how, let’s get back to the which …
Which Church Was That Again?
So what church can lay hold of these promises of God? Any church can, right?
No, actually not. Only pliable churches can lay hold of these promises of God. Only churches that can be led by the anointing can lay hold of these promises.
The Roman Catholic Church is not pliable.
Also, only localÂ churches can lay hold of these promises. You have to have Christians gathering together, seeking God together, and speaking the truth in love to one another. That requires a local church.
The Roman Catholic Church may have some local churches, but it claims to seek and know truth at the heights of hierarchy. It most certainly does not come from “lay” people.
The Roman Catholic Church Has Hijacked the Church Fathers!
Because Protestants have foolishly ignored the wonderful heritage of the apostles–the traditions taught by the apostles themselves and preserved in their early churches–the Roman Catholics have hijacked the fathers. They run an ongoing pretense that the church fathers are Roman Catholic!
The former Episcopal priest mentioned in the article that starts this blog took Cyprian of Carthage as his patron saint. He says:
He’s the one who said, ‘Outside the Church there is no salvation.’
In fact, Cyprian is one of many early Christians who said such a thing. Ireneaus, for example, writing some 70 years before Cyprian and less than a century after the death of the apostle John, says:
It is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the church; since the apostles, like a rich man in a bank, lodged in her hand most copiously all things pertaining to the truth, so that every man, whoever will, can withdraw from her the water of life. She is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. (Against Heresies, III:4:1)
But which church?
Remember, there was no pope in the church in Irenaeus’ day. In fact, Irenaeus twice had to save the Roman church from the failings of its bishops, once when Victor was being seduced by the Valentinians and once when Eleutherus wanted to split the churches of the empire over the date on which to celebrate Passover (which we now call Easter).
The churches did consult with one another. Irenaeus adds:
Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us. Should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches with which the the apostles held constant intercourse and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? (ibid.)
Notice, however, that Irenaeus does not suggest consulting Rome. In fact, in the matter of the Valentinians and the dispute over Passover, Rome consulted him!
He recommends going to any church that can answer the question.
The Roman Catholic Church loves to make a big issue out of the fact that Irenaeus listed the succession of bishops in the Roman church from Peter to Irenaeus’ own time. But why did Irenaeus choose Rome?
Since, however, it would be tedious in such a volume as this to reckon up the successions of all the churches … (ibid., III:3:2)
All Irenaeus had was a collection of churches. There was no hierarchy for him to point to as the official organization that offered salvation to the world. When he spoke of a church, he meant a local church, just as Paul and John did when they spoke of the preservation and finding of truth within the church.
Missed By Protestants and Catholics Alike
There is a Protestant translation of the early church fathers called The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Despite being Protestant, they make the same mistake that Roman Catholics do, substituting some denomination or hierarchy for the local church.
In Tertullian’s brilliant work, The Demurrer Against Heretics, he writes about the truth that comes from the apostles through the churches. Yet even though he uses the word “churches,” plural, five times in chapter 21 of that work, the Protestant translators subtitle the chapter, “All Doctrine True Which Comes Through the Church [singular] from the Apostles.”
They’re wrong! All doctrine is true which comes through the churches from the apostles!
It’s part of his argument! He argues, “Is it likely that so many churches, and they so large, should have gone astray into one and the same faith?” (ibid., 28).
Sure it’s likely, if there’s a pope. If there’s no pope, however, and all the churches of his day (A.D. 200 – 220) were independent, then his argument has weight.
Which Church? A Practical Application
I recommend reading the church fathers. I recommend believing that there’s no salvation outside the church. After all, it’s the Scriptures themselves that tell us that if we are not exhorted daily, then we are in danger of hardening by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). You need the church, as Paul argues so effectively in 1 Cor. 12. You cannot tell the other members you don’t need them.
But once you believe there’s no salvation outside the church, then you have to get in the church that those early church fathers were talking about: the local church.
Which one is that?
It’s the one that’s scattered through all the denominations, split up and fighting with one another over stupid doctrines designed by men that are offensive to God.
It’s the one whose members are in fellowship with fakes, trying to reach out to them and smile at them in the pew next to them. They don’t know those people in the pew next to them, but they can be reasonably confident those people do not want to forsake all their possessions for Christ, open their homes to destitute brothers and sisters, or risk their lives ministering in the inner city or overseas. Shoot, those people in the pews haven’t even heard that they can’t belong to Christ if they don’t hate their family, deny themselves, and forsake their possessions (Luke 14:26-33).
We have to rescue that badly-divided, ineffective, almost invisible church. We have to gather those that have heard the Gospel of complete submission to Christ so that they can show the world around them what Jesus can do through people wholly submitted to him.
We have to gather them so that the truth can be gathered once again into the only container that can hold it: the local church.
I have heard a thousand complaints–from supposed but false Christians–about Jesus Christ’s statement that none of us can be his disciple without forsaking all our possessions (Luke 14:33). What does that mean? I’m on a computer. I’m wearing clothes. I’m sitting at a table in a warm house. In what way have I forsaken all my possessions?
That decision isn’t up to me. The truth of Jesus Christ’s statement is revealed and known when set upon “the pillar and support of the truth.” The pillar and support of the truth is a pliable and local church, nothing else.
Radical Christianity and Radical Restoration of the Church
When I say restoration, I don’t mean restoring some doctrine. I mean restoring the local church. I mean gathering those that love God with their whole hearts and who have wholeheartedly submitted to Christ, then letting them know they no longer need to fellowship with half-hearts. In fact, it’s divisive do do so.
That’s radical. Most people would say it’s impossible.
It’s not; it can’t be.
There isn’t any other church, and we need the salvation it possesses. In that church, there is great grace. In that church, there is a power unknown to those who have not experienced the daily fellowship of the local church, a gathered group of disciples, who are being taught by God as he bestows his anointing in subjection to the teaching of the apostles as found in the Scriptures.
Today, there is a huge flow of people leaving institutional Christianity to meet in homes. This is a terrific opportunity to be taught of God! This is a terrific opportunity to throw off denominational bonds and unite the disciples!
It needs two things:
- It needs to preach a true Gospel. Jesus calls us to wholeheartedly abandon our lives to follow him.
- It needs pliability and flexibility. It must be able to be taught by God. It cannot be focused on or based in doctrine carried over from denominations based in intellectual interpretations of the Scripture. The Scripture was written to produce good works in disciples (2 Tim. 3:16-17), not create ridiculous reasonings and doubtful disputations.
It’s worth it.